Neal Ascherson evaluates where Scotland stands arguing that Brexit has caused parliamentary and political turmoil, while further institutional development has been put on hold while independence continues to be debated.
In the years of political and parliamentary turmoil which tossed British governments during the four years that followed the ‘Brexit’ referendum of 2016, Scotland has sometimes seemed a contrasting example of coherence and purpose. A closer look, however, modifies this view. Scotland’s institutions, both those inherited from the past and new ones introduced since devolution in 1998, give a striking impression of incompleteness – new buildings, as it were, awaiting design instructions for their final stories and roof.
One explanation, favoured by Opposition parties in the Scottish Parliament, has argued that the SNP governments have been too ‘obsessed’ with the independence issue to pay proper attention to Scotland’s institutional development. Another interpretation is that Scotland’s independence is inevitable in the long run, and that planners are reluctant to pre-empt the decisions of a fully sovereign state in the future.
Independence is not inevitable. But there is an undeniable dynamic of change and transformation, attributed by some to the 1998 devolution settlement and by other to the anomalies of the 1707 Union itself. By introducing a democratic element into the Union, devolution floodlit its huge asymmetry in populations, and opened the way not only to contests about the sharing of resources, but to a growing discredit of ‘partnership’ as an accurate account of intra-UK relationships.
A devolved Scotland inherited a number of elderly blocs of power (in the law, education, local government etc) which had acted as unaccountable executive agencies during the centuries when Scotland lacked a legislature. The task of articulating these institutions into a democratic system is compounded by ‘Westminster drag’ – the tendency of new Scottish institutions, including the Parliament, to revert towards Westminster models if not otherwise instructed.
The ideal of a ‘Scottish Approach to Plan-Making’ has made slow progress. Some commentators say that Scottish governments are reluctant to exploit the powers which they already possess. Others suggest that civil servants assume powers which they don’t strictly have, under the Scotland Acts, as they evade some of the impacts of British macro-economic policy. Local government is a typical area of uneasy transition and incompleteness: an often top-heavy structure in which the SNP government’s instinct to centralise conflicts not only with public demands for smaller, much more autonomous units, but with the party’s own emotional commitment to smallness and self-management.
Underlying tensions between Scotland and the rest of the UK is a constitutional disagreement: Westminster holding to the old English doctrine of Parliamentary sovereignty while recent Scottish governments assert the European theory of popular sovereignty under which ‘the Scottish people’ remain the ultimate authority in the state. In practice, Scottish political attitudes are not dramatically unlike those in England: somewhat more left-wing in terms of the public sector, somewhat more liberal towards foreign immigration. These tendencies are often accentuated by political leaders; after the entry of post-Communist states into the European Union in 2004, the Scottish government (a Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition) launched its ‘Fresh Talent’ campaign to recruit immigration from east-central Europe, Poland above all. The initiative aimed to improve both the demographic imbalance in Scotland – the relative lack of young people in the population – and to correct the lack of small start-up entrepreneurs. But an important effect of these campaigns was to demonstrate that Scotland’s needs could diverge from those of the rest of the British state in external affairs, not simply in internal policies.
The SNP governments also emphasise these distinctions as they form policy, both the rhetorical ‘welcome’ to immigrants and incomers and the preference for a strong interventionist state supporting a moderately social-democratic order. With irony, it could be said that the SNP is the most ‘British’ party in the UK, as it attempts to defend the integrity of the old post-war welfare state and the National Health Service against dilution by neo-liberal governments in London.
The past twenty years – the decades of devolution - have clearly restored to Scotland a degree of self-confidence in both identity and prospects not seen, perhaps, since the nineteenth century. The sense that emigration is the proper route for ambition no longer prevails. At the same time, Scottish reactions to sudden change or challenge remain wary. The long Brexit crisis provided an example. When Scotland’s heavy vote to remain in the European Union was obliterated by the English ‘leave’ majority, expectations that this would lead to a surge in support for independence were not fulfilled; the independence option has so far gained only a very marginal majority - and that over four years of turmoil. Instead, there has been a steady increase in scepticism about the ‘partnership’ supposedly offered by the Union. It has also become clear that devolution only made sense in the EU context, in a situation where not only the United Kingdom as a whole but the devolved administrations had submitted many powers to Brussels. Accountability was thus distributed widely across Europe, and there was no way in which Westminster could unilaterally enforce its will on Edinburgh, Cardiff or Belfast. Brexit changes that context, opening the way for a London government to ‘tighten’ the Union by reasserting control over previously devolved subjects.
It’s not surprising that any survey of Scottish institutions today registers this sense of incompleteness, of unfinished plans paused in uncertainty. There is no ‘settled will’ about the constitutional future. It could be a matter of quiet organic growth, until Scotland reaches a condition of full self-government, de facto independence within some ‘British confederation’. It could be a sudden political crisis, leaving Scotland out of the UK but not yet readmitted to the European Union. All that is sure is that independence remains a serious option, that Scotland’s development is essentially on hold until that choice is finally made or buried, and that the old British nations must move to a more modern and flexible relationship.
Neal Ascherson is a journalist and author, who has worked for The Observer and The Scotsman as foreign correspondent and columnist.
'The State of Scotland' was published in The Oxford Handbook of Scottish Politics in August 2020 in the UK and Europe by the Oxford University Press.
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